“When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me."
So begins “The Last of the Wine”, the novel that had made lay Ancient Greece enthusiasts gasp with pleasure and perpetually prickly scholars scratch their heads. As we turn the pages, Alexias, a baby boy born in wake of the plague of Athens, survives his inauspicious childhood, becomes a youth, and then a man during the Peloponnesian War. On the book’s pages we meet Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Phaedo, Kritias, Alkibiades, we hear of Euripedes, Aristophanes, Perikles, Agis. No longer are they hard-to-pronounce names we have read in small-print volumes pulled from dusty bookshelves. They are fully grown people, living their philosophy, politics, and art, right before our eyes.
Following the publication of the book, the author, Mary Renault, had been welcomed warmly (and erroneously) into the collective bosom of scholars who had thought only a fellow classicist could have written a book that gets all the details of this ancient world just right. Gay men were similarly convinced that hiding under the pseudonym of Mary Renault had to be a man. After all, only a man could write in such an intimate manner about love between men, so common in Ancient Greece. To their disappointment, Renault was neither a classicist nor a man.
Prior to writing “The Last of the Wine,” Renault had written six contemporary novels that were … ok. I had read them all, trying to find the seeds of the genius that would produce “The Last of the Wine” and was perplexed. They were ok and that was all. It appears that between the last page of her last contemporary novel and the beginning page of her first historical novel, she got possessed of the novel-writing genius. And the genius did not only help with “The Last of the Wine”, it kept whispering into her ear secrets that had made possible writing of eight more historical novels, including two trilogies, one following the life of Theseus, the other of Alexander the Great. And none of her historical novels had missed the mark. In each, not only does she bring political events and mores of Ancient Greeks to life, she thinks with their minds, betrays their prejudices, exalts their loves, and worships their gods.
Some have facetiously remarked Renault "channeled" Ancient Greece. Well, no matter which ancient daimon had sang into her ear, we should be grateful she brought the long dead world of Ancient Greece to searing, brilliant, life.
I read The Last of the Wine when I was in 6th or 7th grade. And I read every other historical novel she ever wrote. As a writer now myself, I am always looking to draw readers into a story the way she did. When I read her books, I was in ancient Greece and on campaign with Alexander.
Thank for for this lovely post about a writer whose every word transported me.
I am with you Carolyn - trying to if not figure out, at least soak in, some of her magic
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